The Toy Barbie Responds to the Wendy Davis Barbie Wars

Conservatives have adopted Barbie as an insult, but the toymaker is fighting back

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Barbie has had a rough August.

Twice in the past two weeks, conservative leaders have turned her name — a name that has filled the fantasies for millions of girls — into an insult for Texas state senator Wendy Davis. First conservative pundit Erick Erickson of and Fox News called Davis “Abortion Barbie” on Twitter, in an apparent reference to her pro-choice views and physical appearance. Then last weekend Texas attorney general Greg Abbott thanked a supporter who called Davis “Retard Barbie” over Twitter. Both slurs caused a media and political firestorm. Neither was approved by Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturer and a fierce protector of Barbie’s reputation. “As a pop-culture icon, Barbie is often referenced as part of larger conversations occurring in culture,” a spokesperson for the company says. “The so-called Wendy Davis doll is not produced or endorsed by Mattel.”

Barbie’s real message, as told through fictional doll story lines, is quite different, the company argues. Once a symbol of female domesticity, Barbie in recent decades has been preoccupied with breaking glass, or plastic, ceilings. She has forged more than 135 careers since she was born in 1959. Barbie was an astronaut who landed on the moon four years before Neil Armstrong. She taught sign language and Spanish. She was a UNICEF-summit diplomat, an ambassador for world peace and a NASCAR driver. She has served in all four branches of the U.S. armed forces and ran for President in every election since 1992, nearly 15 years before Hillary Clinton threw her hat into the ring. “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be,” Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler, once said. “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

Of course, Barbie is a complicated model of feminism. She always wears makeup. If she were life-size, her waist would be just about half of the female national average. Her 1965 bathroom scale was set permanently at 110 lb. And Mattel did not create an African-American Barbie until 1980, more than two decades after the first toy hit store shelves.

But choices for women, ironically, are the very thing that conservatives co-opting Barbie’s name are fighting against. Progressives did the same thing with the Sarah Palin “Caribou Barbie” fiasco of the 2008 presidential election, just from the opposite side of the political spectrum. This time around, Davis has worked to change abortion policies in Texas, and more broadly, to push Texas off the red ledge and make it a blue state. She just happens to wear pink shoes while she is doing it. “This level of vitriol from the right tells me one thing: they know that Wendy Davis offers the kind of real change that Texas voters want — and they are scared to death of her because of it,” Elisabeth Pearson, political director of the Democratic Governors Association, wrote in an e-mail to supporters on Monday.

If there’s anything that Davis, Palin and Barbie share, it is that there is a cost to rising quickly into the national consciousness, especially when you are one of America’s most famous and beautiful women. And, politics aside, Barbie could add “social-media adviser” to her growing list of careers. She tweets regularly from her @Barbie handle to her more than 180,000 followers. At least she could teach people like Erickson and Abbott a few social-media best practices: when Barbie tweets, she inspires her sisterhood to achieve their dreams. She doesn’t use appearance as a way of belittling a woman’s success.